As boxing continues to evolve in mixed martial arts (MMA), so do the training methods employed. Absent from many MMA gyms is one of the most fundamental techniques used in boxing for more than a century–shadow boxing. If you are a fighter and you want to bring your boxing to the next level quickly, you must consistently incorporate shadow boxing into your training regimen. Below we will provide the rationale along with some basic strategies for getting the most out of your shadow boxing. If you shadow box regularly under the watchful eye of an expert boxing coach, you may want to stop reading here. If not, keep reading!
A Brief Reflection
If you are a fan of MMA since its inception, you have had a front row seat to the birth and evolution of what we consider the greatest sport in the world; one that has lineage to ancient Greek Olympics, almost 3,000 years ago, rooted in wrestling and boxing. Much like the natural selection process underlying evolution, these fans have witnessed different forms of the martial arts reign during certain eras. Fighters like Royce Gracie, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, and Anderson Silva all dominated with strategies heavily focused in BJJ, Wrestling, Kickboxing, and Muay Thai.
Even with the natural progression of MMA to more “well rounded” approaches, purer forms of boxing were employed by only a handful of fighters. This is likely because leagues of athletes followed in the footsteps of these pioneers who tended to use more of a forward moving Muay Thai or Kickboxing based approach rooted in power techniques as opposed to the finesse and lateral movement hallmark to many of the greatest boxers. And for good reason, boxing by itself is a liability in MMA because of the variety of offenses available that pure boxing technique does not account for (e.g. kicks, takedowns, clinch, etc.). In fact, the emergence of boxing techniques as an effective arsenal in the cage was squashed in UFC 1 when boxer Art Jimmerson, sporting one boxing glove on his lead hand, was taken down and submitted in just a couple of minutes.
Well, as they say, “times are a changin’!” After Maurice Smith demonstrated that strikers can be effective in MMA through a sprawl and brawl technique, boxing techniques have slowly crept back into the sport and are now being applied effectively by fighters like Jorge Masvidal, Cody Garbrandt, Nate Diaz, and Junior dos Santos to name a few. To be clear, these athletes are mixed martial artists. Pure boxers would understandably not fare well in MMA; however, recent stellar performances by Masvidal and Garbrandt hammered home how key aspects of boxing can be applied to MMA to beat top-flight fighters. These aspects include use of range and angles, relaxed punching, head movement, footwork, body punching, and consistent use of the jab to set up power punches.
Since repetition is critical to gaining proficiency in any skill, shadow boxing is a pivotal training technique because it provide fighters the opportunity to unlimited repetitions with little physical wear-and-tear. But please note that it’s not just any reps, these should be high-quality reps with deliberate focus on specific skills and strategies. A key strategy is to film the sessions and make corrections to form and enhance or provide more complexities to the shadow boxing as the skill progresses. Bruce Lee summed this up perfectly when he said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Great MMA boxers like Masvidal engage in quality reps along with other aspects of training that include good coaching and sparring. Shadow boxing is a time-tested, essential tool for building striking efficiency and effectiveness.
Son of legendary Howard Davis Jr., professional boxer and MMA boxing coach Dyah Davis had this to say about the importance of shadow boxing in mixed martial artists:
Shadow boxing is an essential practice for both MMA combatants and boxers. I make all the fighters I train shadow box at least 4 rounds as a warm up, with a mix of bag work, head movement drills and lastly focus mitts or pads and then back to shadowing a round or two as a cool down. I've noticed Shadow boxing in MMA for some it isn't used as much as it should be. I've even asked some of the fighters why they don't and most say they'd rather not waste their energy hitting nothing and would rather use that energy on the bag, mitts etc. but shadowing is an art and a major tool that should be used by every combatant. For whatever reason, the guys that don't I feel is the result of a lack of creative thinking.
Beyond Davis’ own experience and stellar boxing record, he has been first-hand witness to the benefits of regular shadow boxing by directly observing his father. Watch as Howard is recorded throwing an amazing 30 punches in just over 3 seconds.
How is it that simulating a fight through shadow boxing can lead to more efficient, effective, and faster striking? Well, there is a ton of research on the benefits of deliberate practice for building fluency (i.e. performing automatically, quickly, and accurately) with any skill. Fluency results in relaxation. Relaxation results in effortless speed and power. Consider the 100-meter sprinter. He runs his best time when he’s running hard but relaxed. This relaxed exertion requires the fighter to find the right balance through practice to keep the tension out of his shoulders while directing his energy to strike at the opportune time. Relaxed exertion also positively impacts endurance-capabilities as it allows the fighter to be highly efficient in their striking.
Fluency is the name of the game. Fighters do not have time to think. They clearly must react quickly and accurately if they are to be effective. While receiving regular feedback from coaches is important (especially during the acquisition of new skills), shadow-boxing does not regularly require coaches, rings, or even a partner to engage in this practice. The most important return on investment these training practices afford the striker are that they: (1) provide high reps which allow for automaticity (habit), and (2) they provide functional conditioning which allows for effortless, fast, and powerful strikes. Regardless of how technically sound a striker is, if he or she isn’t properly conditioned in the specific skill, the technique will suffer.
Tip– An important component of deliberate practice is to continually receive performance feedback. So watch yourself in the mirror for immediate feedback, and film yourself shadow-boxing and working the bag. Spend some time with your coach reviewing video will allow you to make any necessary corrections based on the feedback from the coach. Accept the feedback and integrate it into the practice, then get back to shadow-boxing.
It is clear that shadow boxing is important to becoming a mixed martial artist with good boxing skills. But what exactly is shadow boxing? Much like a the traditional martial artist practices kata, shadowboxing is a less scripted, more fluid training technique that entails the fighter rehearsing all aspects of his boxing repertoire as he simulates a fight. Specifically, the fighter imagines an opponent defending and throwing punches and he or she does the same. The beauty of shadow boxing is that it can be done almost anywhere, at any time. The gym, the beach, the hallway at work, the parking lot, and while limited, aspects of shadowboxing can even be done from your seat! Fighters who regularly shadow box have striking that truly looks like art. In fact, one can often tell which fighters have put in the required reps by the shoulder roll (it almost looks as if the fighter is temporarily dislocating their shoulder) apparent while they are shadow boxing. While many mixed martial artists tend to have tight shoulders with little “roll,” watch any professional boxer as they shadow box. The difference will be apparent.
Different types of shadow boxing
The focus of shadow boxing can vary based on a variety of considerations like a fighter’s skill level (e.g. novice vs expert) or perhaps strategic preparation for an upcoming fight. Fighters and coaches can get highly creative with how they use it. As Davis wisely noted:
Shadowing is not only a tool to practice your technique and craft but it's also an opportunity for the fighter to create certain scenarios that could actually happen in a fight. You may be up against an opponent who moves a lot and may have to play the role of a come forward aggressive fighter, attacking with good power jabs, head movement and feints to get the fighter on the defensive; or to break the fighter’s rhythm to get close or cut the cage off to stop the movement of that fighter. Or you can be up against an aggressive come forward fighter and you may have to play the role of the slick mover using angles, pivots to keep the aggressive bull off you playing the role of a matador. These are just a couple of scenarios that need to be played out during your career as a fighter because best believe one day you will come across a fighter of that particular style and repetition is the only way to get it done.
Remember, concepts of deliberate practice need to be applied based on the primary purpose of the shadow boxing in that moment. As Davis stated, it is common for boxers to use shadow boxing to warm up and cool down. All mixed martial artists should take a page out of the boxers training regimen by at least embedding this powerful training technique into their daily warm up and cool down. Those that do will take their striking skills to the next level.
An expert in leadership and human performance, Dr. Paul "Paulie Gloves" Gavoni is a highly successful professional striking coach in mixed martial arts. As an athletic leader and former golden gloves heavyweight champion of Florida, Coach Paulie successfully applies the science of human behavior to coach multiple fighters to championship titles at varying levels worldwide. With many successful fighters on his resume, Coach Paulie tailors his approach to fit the needs of specific fighters based on a fighters behavioral, physiological, and psychological characteristics. Coach Paulie is a writer for Last Word on Sports and is a featured coach in the book, Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts.
Alex Edmonds, PhD, BCB, is currently an associate professor of research at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. He graduated from Florida State University and received his doctoral degree in Educational Psychology with a minor in Statistics and Measurement. Over the years, Dr. Edmonds has applied his knowledge of research design, measurement and assessment in both field and laboratory examinations. He has published extensively in a variety of areas such as research design, psychophysiology and sport psychology. Prior to graduate school, he was a strength and conditioning coach working with professional athletes in football, track, and boxing. He then combined his passion for the sports with the field of psychology making it the emphasis of his graduate work. While in graduate school, he conducted his field work with the track and field team at Florida State and started using biofeedback for research and practice during this time. He has utilized biofeedback extensively with various types of athletes for performance enhancement, as well as stress-regulation techniques. Dr. Edmonds is certified through the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance in general biofeedback.